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Asking the Clergy: Theological, moral lessons from popular movies, TV shows

From left, Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of Central Synagogue-Beth

From left, Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, Sanaa Nadim of the Islamic Society Interfaith Center, and the Rev. William McBride of the Interfaith Community Religious Education Program. Photo Credit: Julie Skiddell; Newsday / John H.Cornell Jr.; Interfaith Community Religious Education Program

The average watercooler conversation likely doesn’t cover the spiritual message to be drawn from last night’s TV show or that summer blockbuster. But pop-culture offerings can be interpreted in ways meaningful to the faithful. This week’s clergy discuss — spoiler alert! — lessons gleaned from a multiplex visit or couch bingeing session.

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell

Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, Rockville Centre

Millions all over the world watched the recently concluded HBO series "Game of Thrones," but it’s safe to say not many tuned in for moral and theological lessons. Nevertheless, GOT was saturated with religion and offered a glimpse into the origins and development of theological teachings and religious structures.

I had two religious concepts reinforced by watching all eight seasons. First, my rejection of religious fanaticism was strengthened. The power and influence of the “Faith Militant” and its leader, the “High Sparrow,” seemed at the outset to be a force for morality in a society riddled by violence and licentiousness, but their growing extremism led ultimately to their own destruction. I believe that religions and religious leaders who are reasonable and rational are more likely to attract adherents and to influence society than those who are extreme, fanatical and inflexible.

Another religious lesson is the importance of cooperation among all peoples. The inhabitants of the “Seven Kingdoms” would never have been able to defeat the “White Walkers” and the "Night King" if they had not overcome their prejudices and put aside their distrust of the “Free Folk” who inhabit the far north, beyond the wall built to keep them out. They put their many differences and disputes aside to defeat a common enemy. A classic story of the struggle between good and evil and the capacity of humanity for change and redemption, "Game of Thrones" is, as one essayist put it, “The Best Religious Show on Television.”

Sanaa Nadim

Chaplain, Islamic Society Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University

Despite our recent cultural shift toward bingeing on TV shows, I, like others, have trouble keeping up. And so while I am aware that "The Handmaid's Tale" has progressed to Season 3, I would like to specifically remark on the sacrifice made by the protagonist, Offred (played by Elizabeth Moss), in the Season 2 finale.

In the penultimate scene of the episode, Offred is given a rare opportunity to escape the oppressive and totalitarian regime, Gilead, which actively treats women like chattel owned by private households or the state and subjects them to constant emotional and physical abuse. On her trek toward the truck intended to drive her to Canada, she is carrying her infant child. As the doors to the truck open, she hands her infant over to a friend, Ofglen. Instead of climbing in herself, she watches as the truck drives away. Forgoing her own opportunity to escape, Offred stays to fight for others.

Tightly packed within the confines of this quick on-screen moment is a concept baked in the core of Islam: sacrificing one's own comfort and security to help others. The echo of this virtue on screen was a critical reminder that progress and social cohesion come from a painstaking willingness to do for others. This exemplary principle overcomes partisanship and is a reminder that goodness and good deeds, from personal sacrifice, motivate civic participation and create cohesion.

The Rev. William McBride

Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus

The moral lesson I’ve drawn from a recent viewing of "Toy Story 4" is that your friends and family animate and guide you toward your highest calling.

Ever since the introduction of the original "Toy Story" and its soulful song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” these Pixar creations have moved us to muse over the importance of friends in discerning our direction.

In the latest sequel, four characters, in particular, model types of friends calling us to be our best selves. Woody is a friend-as-companion who helps us play our best. He accompanies Bonnie to her class, leaves his ego at the door and arranges things in a way that enables her to play so beautifully that she transforms a piece of trash into a friend who becomes a treasured blessing. This new friend, named Forky, models a friend-as-blessing for life. Forky asks Woody, “Why am I alive?” Woody responds, “You’re Bonnie’s toy. You are going to create happy memories that will last for the rest of her life.”

Next, Buzz is a friend-as-conscience calling Woody to heed his inner voice and follow wherever it leads. Finally, Bo Peep, a long-lost friend, represents a friend as destiny. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it, but Bo calls Woody to a very high place, to infinity and beyond, full of love and friendship.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com. Find more LI Life stories at newsday.com/LILife.

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